Photography by Allan E. Schoening
Words by Michael Fensom
Video by Jeff Croghan
The models stood in a row along a faux wall fabricated from black curtains. Hung from a garment rack along the wall was a placard listing the contents of each girl’s wardrobe and the contents themselves: silk blouses, a woolen cocktail dress, a velvet jumpsuit. The girls disrobed mechanically and idled with varying degrees of disinterest. Their bodies were remarkably similar — long legs and torsos, sloping shoulders and small breasts — capable of fitting a sample size, in this case a small size 4. For some, this was their first Fashion Week in New York and they still seemed unaccustomed to the chaotic backstage swirling moments before a show. Makeup artists, nine in all, retouched and touched again; the team of eight responsible for frizzing, teasing and pinning the models’ hair into confetti-sized zig-zags teased, pinned and sprayed, lacquering the hair into place. Stylists trimmed loose strings and padded stilettos and picked lint meticulously. Amidst the chaos, Suzanne Rae Pelaez moved at half the speed. She, too, seemed detached from the commotion, intently scrutinizing the garments she had spent the better part of six months designing.
The night before her first show at the tents plopped on the southern edge of Lincoln Center, along 62nd street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenue, Suzanne stared at the clothes at her apartment and studio in Bushwick and felt nauseated. “You go through love and hate,” she said the next morning as a black SUV wound through Midtown Manhattan streets choked with the exhaust exhalations of cars, trucks, vans and buses — up 3rd Avenue then west past Madison then 5th Avenue towards Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week’s penultimate day in New York, before the traveling circus barnstormed to London, Milan and, finally, Paris. “Sometimes you look and like what you’ve done and think, This was smart. Sometimes you say, ‘What was I thinking? How is this contributing to the fashion world?’”
The garments took life as the 20 models were buttoned and zipped into them. They had been in Suzanne’s head or hands nearly every day since September, and in the fleeting moments right before the show were on her mind more than ever, her sole focus. But in a matter of minutes, her feelings of sartorial success or failure would matter little. As soon as the first model, in a dress of red stretch velvet, emerged from the bedlam backstage through a set of French doors with frosted glass set in 18 panes, the ready-to-wear collection would be set forth for public consumption, criticism and commendation. It is the hope of every designer, that opinions surrounding a collection, whether from a critic or passerby, are positive, but it also a scientific truth of Fashion Week in New York, the stretch between February 9 and 16, that the tents at Lincoln Center are full of more hot air than any place in the city.
This year’s Fall collection is the fourth Suzanne has produced under her eponymous label, Suzanne Rae, since studying at Parsons School of Design following four years at Bryn Mawr College, outside Philadelphia, but the experience has been decidedly unique. Suzanne designed the collection with a theme of internal revolution at the forefront of her mind after finding a 1982 issue of “Rolling Stone” at a garage sale featuring a story on Jim Morrison. William Blake and Aldous Huxley were also became influences. As the collection began to take shape, the circumstances surrounding it fed into the theme of internal revolution not just for the clothes, but for the designer and her label.
Suzanne never envisioned showing a collection at the tents, if for no other reason than she enjoyed the freedom of operating on fashion’s periphery, not beholden to a particular structure. “I met this woman one time who said to me, ‘I’ve followed you since you started. You’re very peculiar,’ Suzanne said. “She was like, ‘You do things in your own way.” A partnership with the W Hotel, for their Fashion Next series highlighting emerging designers, brought her to the tents, the epicenter of Fashion Week, and signified a gathering recognition of her work. But even as she became initiated into fashion’s more mainstream circles, Suzanne has maintained an outsider’s viewpoint. Her internal revolution has taken shape as a reconciliation between making clothes that subscribe to her views on fashion while also finding a comfortable niche in a marketplace that is often reluctant to embrace new designers, let alone new ideologies.
“What you wear is part of your narrative,” Suzanne says. “Whatever you wear affects how you act and how you present yourself because you feel a certain way. In creating certain clothes, the way it feels, the silhouette, a certain color, the aesthetic — there’s this visual language that exists and you use that visual language by manipulating it, challenging it or reinforcing it to make certain designs. And that, in turn, creates the experience for the wearer and the visualizer.
““It’s not like my philosophy is a 100 percent aesthetic philosophy,” she continued. “It’s so difficult because it’s abstract sometimes because I’m talking about this experience and trying to be progressive in multiple ways and how that progress starts from within. And that there’s certain traces we can’t help that affects everything we do. Even if you say you don’t care about clothes, the people who think people in fashion are shallow, or whatever, they still choose to wear what they wear. So I think there is a great purpose in fashion. I’m trying to take these concepts and ideas and beliefs I have and try to express them through every collection and I don’t know how far I get. Sometimes I wonder if I get far at all.”
With a significant portion of the international media hoard covering Fashion Week perusing the tents, Fall 2012 will gain more exposure than any of Suzanne’s previous collections, the benefit of which is twofold. From a sales perspective, the momentum of press-generated buzz can carry the clothes to the racks of retailers — currently, Suzanne Rae is sold in three stores, including Stevan Alan in TriBeCa and Tomorrowland in Japan — and make the label profitable.
The influence of the press on consumers and therefore retailers has shifted with the proliferation of the internet. In the past, stores acted as taste-makers, seeking out new designers and showcasing trends. Now, multitudinous bloggers and critics dictate trends to the public, and retailers have become reactive to the public’s demands. As a result of this shift and the economic constraints that retailers have felt for the past four years, stores have bent to the consumer consensus, which often squeezes new designers (particularly those who specialize in ready-to-wear clothing) off the shelves and toward the periphery. In theory, the press attention gained by showing a collection at the tents will lead a designer to more recognition, and greater sales.
Globalism and the internet have also served to constrict the market for designer clothing. Trends and individual approaches to fashion are now more quickly absorbed by mainstream culture and reproduced on a mass scale. Fashion Week, itself, has become a mainstream biannual event, transforming from a showcase of around 75 designers when it began in 2004 to a massive event that this year featured over 400 designers and countless corporate sponsorships, from Mercedes-Benz to Fiber One granola bars.
“No longer do people go to Paris to buy French designers, or go get something here because they can’t find it anywhere,” Suzanne says. “You can buy anything, not even just in New York City, but at your desk at home you can buy it. It’s so true. And if you see something that’s $3,000 it’s not necessarily that you can’t get that. There’s a $3,000 version, a $300 version and there’s a $30 version. It just depends on what store you go to and those stores exist in every country now, almost.”
Suzanne also hopes showing at the tents will allow for more freedom of expression, a right of passage for designers that comes not just with a gain in sales but as reputation in the industry grows. With each collection, the designer who originally studied to become a physician and only learned to sew at Parsons said she feels more command of her craft and has grown more knowledgeable in conveying her message. “Designers usually start to hit their stride with their fourth and fifth collections,” said Asanti’ Austin, who styled the runway show for Suzanne. “I worked with Suzy on her very first show, and you see where she has come from then to now.”
“Kristina (Ratliff), my PR person, says it’s her favorite collection so far,” Suzanne says. “And a lot of people feel that it was. You know, you always want to take something to the next level, and it’s sort of hard to define what that would mean, but for me it would be a combination between being more accessible and appealing to a larger audience and at the same time without sacrificing and maybe increasing the artistry. So I felt like I achieved that.
“For me, with my first collections after every show, man, I fucking partied. I celebrated. It’s my fourth season doing this — two years now — and I’m trying to be really serious about it because I guess part of that excitement of putting on a show has faded for me, because it’s really work. The moment I get more stores to back up the press I’m getting, maybe that would be a relief and maybe I’d enjoy again the success of putting on a show. But I know that in the back of my mind this is just the beginning of pushing out another collection and getting more press and getting more sales. (The show) is not a finale. One day I’ll be able to enjoy doing the shows even more because I’ll be able to make the shows as artistic and imaginative and really live a sort of fantasy. That’s part of what I think fashion is about: fantasy. Not just for me but for the consumer, too.”
Click here to see more of her work.